General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History
(excerpt from chapter about the fascist coup plot)
By Hans Schmidt
Tackling the political issue, he blasted the so-called Royal Family of financiers that controlled the Legion. Speaking to members of the more restive and openly dissident [Veterans of Foreign Wars] VFW in New Orleans in December 1932, on the same platform with Huey Long appealing for "share the wealth," he repeated a mutinous attack he had made at a Legion convention in Cincinnati: "I said that I had never known one leader of the American Legion who had never sold them out-and I mean it." The Royal Family was maneuvering the Legion into supporting the gold standard, then advocated by certain Wall Street interests in opposition to inflationary New Deal monetary policies. Butler told the New Orleans veterans not to be taken in; "What the hell do you know about the gold standard? You stand by your friends and to hell with therest of them." As for Wall Street, it should pay their bonuses:
"I believe in making Wall Street pay for it-taking Wall Street by the throat and shaking it up."22
A year later in Atlanta, he began a tour of VFW posts on the invitation of its commander, fellow-Pennsylvanian James E. Van Zandt, whom he boosted as honest in contrast to Legion leadership. Denouncing war as "largely a matter of money" to profit the privileged classes, he cautioned the vets not to believe "the propaganda capital circulates. Capital owns all the newspapers." Politically, he advised skepticism: "Democrats take care of you, keep them in-if not, put 'em out." The speech was reported to FDR's political adviser Louis Howe by an operative who made behind-the-scenes inquiries into Butler's schedule of twenty VFW speeches around the country at $250 each. Butler had been "approached by a representative of the bankers gold group" and offered $750 extra per speech if he would make favorable references to the gold standard. "This would have meant an additional ten thousand dollars to General Butler, but he told the representative of the gold group that even if he were offered a hundred thousand dollars to do this, his answer would be 'no."' While he did not personally know Butler, the operative commented that rejection of the bribe "shows him to be a man of exceptional character." 23
Butler's dealings with the "bankers gold group" extended from the summer of 1933 until September 1934, and climaxed in his November exposé of an alleged plot by Wall Street interests to topple President Roosevelt and establish a dictatorship. The story broke in the New York Post and Philade/phia Record under the banner headline "GEN. BUTLER CHARGES FASCIST PLOT,' and revealed what purported to be Butler's testimony to a closed session of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in New York. Financiers led by broker Grayson M.-P. Murphy and Singer sewing machine heir Robert Sterling Clark had raised $3 million, with more in the offing, and approached Butler to lead an army of 500,000 veterans to overthrow the government in a bloodless coup. FDR would be persuaded to put Butler in charge of Civilian Conservation Corps camps which were to serve as support facilities during a paramilitary phase. Had Butler declined the role of man on the white horse, Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur and then Hanford MacNider, a former American Legion commander, were said to be next in line. Other former Legion commanders were mentioned as coconspirators.24
The New York Times added rumors, heatedly denied by Butler, that he had told friends that General Hugh S.Johnson was slated to be dictator and that J.P. Morgan & Company was involved. The Times' brief sketch of Butler's charges was followed by an authoritative "chorus of denials" which took up most of the two-column front page lead, .conveying an impression of skepticism. An editorial the next day dismissed the whole story as "a gigantic hoax." Morgan partner Thomas W Lamont called it "perfect moonshine." MacArthur referred to it as "the best laugh story of the year." Murphy said it was a "damned lie," and Clark threatened a libel suit. Gerald C. MacGuire, a Murphy & Company employee whom Butler named as intermediary, called it a "publicity stunt." On the other hand, Van Zandt, head of VFW, stated in Helena that Butler had told him about the plot two months previously, and that he had also been approached. Congressman John W McCormack announced that HUAC had been investigating for five weeks. Co-Chairman Samuel Dickstein, dismissed by Time magazine as "publicity-loving," said that "from present indications, General Butler has the evidence.. . . We will have some men here with bigger names than Butler's before this is over." 25
The sensation in the news media discouraged systematic investigation or discreet procedures, and everyone involved played to the galleries from the start. Moreover HUAC, even in these relatively scrupulous early days- stalking both Communists and Fascists-was itself engaged mainly in trial by publicity. There was no serious prospect of formal legal proceedings. The committee was powerless, Dickstein acknowledged privately, to compel witnesses to appear or produce documents. When McCormack was asked whether Robert Sterling Clark, who was in Europe, might be extradited to testif~y, he replied, "There's no question of extradition. No crime has been committed. Under our law, you can go ahead and form any organization you want."26
From Butler's perspective, the flourish of publicity suited his militant extrovert style and limited outsider's options-although later he toldJ. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that he informed HUAC he had reported the plot to the Treasury Department's Secret Service, apparently to no avail.27 Butler was a loner with no organizational base. He was well aware of the extent to which public facades of propriety and calm masked manipulations by the rich and powerful. But during the l93 Os, revelations of failure and scandal had tended to discredit many conventional illusions. From the perspective of more complacent times, Butler might have seemed a disgruntled loser; now there was something wildly heroic in his defiance. His protagonists in the present scrap-Wall Street brokers, their legal counselors, and shrewd political operatives-were backed by a supporting network that extended into veterans' affairs, politics, and the right-wing press. For Smedley this had become a war of attrition. In September he told the story to Paul Comly French, investigative reporter for the liberal J. David Stern newspapers-the Record, Post, and two Camden sheets. French interviewed the intermediary, MacGuire, and appeared before HUAC as a corroborating witness.
The story that Butler and French told under oath to the committee necessarily centered on MacGuire. Smedley related in impressive detail how MacGuire, first accompanied by another legionnaire, William H. Doyle, had contacted him repeatedly over the previous year and a half regarding Legion political intrigues. Initially, Butler was to accompany several hundred Pennsylvania legionnaires to the Chicago national convention, where they would be strategically placed on the convention floor to start a demonstration while he read a speech favoring the gold standard. MacGuire gave Smedley a copy of the speech and showed him bankbooks with deposits of $42,000 and $64,000. He offered to pay all expenses, and subsequently identified his sponsors as Murphy, by whom he was otherwise employed as a $100-a-week bond salesman, and multimillionaire Clark. In September 1933, when Butler refused the offer and accused him of bluffing, MacGuire threw down a wad of $1,000 bills on a Newark hotel bed, saying it was $18,000. Butler countered that this was an ensnarement, numbered bills to implicate him, and insisted on dealing directly with MacGuire's superiors.28
Several days later Butler wrote MacGuire that the Newark proposal was a great idea" and he would have no difficulty getting a hundred legionnaires. There must be "positive assurance of financial support" and no "slip-up in the arrangements, particularly in the matter of paying their expenses and treating them properly." He proposed that MacGuire stage a fight on the convention floor to have him invited to speak, in which case he would fly to Chicago. "If I am to be of any value to the cause you sponsor, I would necessarily have to have some position. All of this would be lost if I force my way into this part through an imitation delegateship."29 This letter is one of the few relevant items in Butler's papers. In the light of his subsequent testimony and HUAC documentation, he was presumably playing along with the scheme in order to draw out its sponsors.
Whereupon Clark, according to Butler's HUAC testimony, made
the pilgrimage to Newtown Square. Smedley had known him briefly
during the Boxer campaign in 1900 as the "millionaire lieutenant"
serving with the army. Clark offered to pay off the mortgage on
Butler's house and provide a private railroad car to take him
to Chicago for the gold speech. The rationale for the veterans
was that their bonuses would be paid in sound money. Smedley refused
and berated Clark for trying to bribe him. Clark backed down,
and using Smedley's phone gave instructions that neither he nor
Butler would be at the convention, and to send telegrams instead.30
Butler noted that the Legion convention, after receiving a flood of telegrams, endorsed the gold standard but not the bonus. MacGuire turned up again to offer $1,000 and a private car for making a gold speech in Boston, but Smedley declined. MacGuire went to Europe in early 1934, then the two met in August and MacGuire allegedly unfolded plans for a coup. He had observed European veterans' movements, particularly in France, and proposed something similar. There would be $3 million to start with and $300 million later. Destitute captains would be paid $35 a month, privates $10. After the coup, a Secretary of General Welfare would supersede FDR in the national interest; all was to be patriotic and there was no need for violence. MacGuire, according to Butler, described Smedley's pivotal role: "The Morgan interests say that you cannot be trusted, that you will be too radical, and so forth, that you are too much on the side of the little fellow; you cannot be trusted. They do not want you. But our group tells them that you are the only fellow in America who can get the soldiers together. They say, 'Yes, but he will get them together and go in the wrong way."'31
French testified that during their interview MacGuire baldly advocated a Fascist government to save the country from communism. As for the existing government, "we might go along with Roosevelt and then do with him what Mussolini did with the King of Italy." Butler could organize a million men overnight; half the Legion and half the VFW would join.32
A great deal obviously depended upon how much the committee could get out of the middleman MacGuire, and to what extent he could be convincingly linked to alleged sponsors. He was a slippery witness. A short, pudgy, middle-aged man with what the Record described as "a plaintive voice with a faint East Side accent," MacGuire repeatedly perjured himself. He admitted meeting Butler eight or nine times, initially as a member of the Legion's distinguished guest committee to see if Smedley would favor the sound dollar and run for commander of the Legion. Together with Doyle, he proposed the gold resolution at the Chicago convention and sent ninety-nine telegrams. But he flatly denied just about everything else and was badly compromised by the committee's investigations into his bank accounts, by his movements as traced by hotel bookings, and then by the testimony of Clark's attorney who ran MacGuire as legman for the Committee for a Sound Dollar and Sound Currency. For instance, HUAC investigators established that MacGuire was in Newark and in possession of a large number of thousand-dollar bills on the date specified by Butler, and not in Chicago as MacGuire had testified in his alibi. Having denied ever having access to more than the $30,000 above-board capitalization of the Committee for a Sound Dollar, he was now shown to have been in possession of $64,000 at the convention and to have spent $24,000 for what Clark's attorney called "ii3~ HUAC also produced letters written by MacGuire from Europe reporting favorable impressions of the Croix de Feu, the right-wing French veterans' association, plus a few references to fascism, but this evidence was weak.
Clark's attorney, Albert Grant Christmas, testified frankly as to how he had run MacGuire as an agent in Legion politics. This clarified the conspiratorial workings of the Committee for a Sound Dollar, which was funded by Clark, but most of this was already known from Butler's testimony substantiated by HUAC investigations. Christmas offered extra tidbits that dramatized MacGuire's deceitfulness; while MacGuire denied proposing a gold speech to Butler, Christmas said that it was MacGuire's idea to begin with, and that he later received a report of Butler's refusal. In all, he laid everything neatly at the doorstep of the Committee for a Sound Dollar and made MacGuire look like a bungling, third-rate confidence artist. His testimony was limited to what he himself volunteered because of his privileged attorney-client relationship with Clark. Congressman Dickstein remarked to McCormack that there was "no question that MacQuire [sic] told an untruth and that this Committee ought to do something about it," but nothing was done. HUAC was at the end of its current congressional mandate, which was not renewed; Christmas testified on its final day...
Thus, testimony and other evidence convincingly established that a substantial part of Butler's story was true, but mainly that which dealt with the gold cabal. This involved more details of Wall Street manipulation of veterans affairs than had hitherto been publicly disclosed, but not so as to fundamentally recast conventional wisdom regarding the "Royal Family" or the stereotype of legionnaire dupes wielding baseball bats as auxilliary strikebreakers. Butler's personal integrity was vindicated insofar as he was shown to have rejected enticements to sell out the rank-and-file veterans. These significant disclosures tended to be lost, however, in the confusion surrounding the larger issue of an alleged plot to overthrow the government. In the HUAC proceedings, the grandiose conspiracy to mobilize 500,000 veterans reduced simply to what Butler and French said MacGuire had told them, supported by very few slender threads of circumstantial evidence.
Even if Butler was telling the truth, as there seems little
reason to doubt, there remains the unfathomable problem of MacGuire's
motives and veracity. He may have been working both ends against
the middle, as Butler at one point suspected. In any case, MacGuire
emerged from the HUAC hearings as an inconsequential trickster
whose base dealings could not possibly be taken alone as verif~ing
such a momentous undertaking. If he was acting as an intermediary
in a genuine probe, or as agent provocateur sent to fool Butler,
his employers were at least clever enough to keep their distance
and see to it that he self-destructed on the witness stand.
But why did Butler publicize the plot in its most lurid scope just on the basis of MacGuire's fantastic pitch? Tactically, the gold cabal did constitute a prima facie case of Wall Street conspiracy, while the coup provided sensational impact to launch the whole package as a major exposé. The New York Times editorialized that "Butler himself does not appear to more than half credit it."35 But there were circumstantial details in MacGuire's pitch that predicted imminent major developments in Wall Street opposition to the Roosevelt administration, demonstrating, as MacGuire no doubt intended, that he had access to high-level inside information. These led Butler to believe, or so he testified, that MacGuire's plot was part of a formidable undertaking. MacGuire apparently made every effort to present the plot in this way. But most of Butler's and French's testimony regarding MacGuire's name-dropping and informed gossiping, crucial ploys in establishing his credibility as intermediary, were omitted as hearsay from HUAC's published extracts of the hearings.
The suppressed testimony was indeed hearsay, and defamatory insofar as it implicated leading Wall Street and government figures in the alleged plot. On the other hand, by the very conspiratorial nature of the undertaking, these circumstantial connections and innuendos provided the most important substantiation of a larger conspiracy. Most significant was the allusion in the published version to an unnamed "society to maintain the Constitution" with "big fellows in it" that, according to Butler quoting MacGuire, would be publicly announced in several weeks. This society was to be the "background" for the veterans plot, its members "the villagers in the opera." Censored out of the published extracts was Butler's comment:
"and in about two weeks the American Liberty League appeared, which was just about what he described it to be. That is the reason I tied it up with this other thing about Al Smith and some of the other people, because of the name [names] that appeared in connection with this Liberty League."36
Inasmuch as the Liberty League was the major organized right-wing assault on Roosevelt in the mid-1930s, and included in its leadership former Democratic presidential candidates Al Smith and John W Davis, with both mentioned and Davis actually impugned in the Butler-MacGuire conversations, this was relevant circumstantial corroboration of sorts. More telling was the association between MacGuire, Murphy, and Clark with the Legion gold intrigue on the one hand and the League on the other. Murphy was treasurer of the Liberty League, Clark one of its founding donors.
The fact that HUAC suppressed testimony dealing with the Liberty League and prominent personalities tended to magnify the significance of deleted passages and discredit the integrity of HUAC's investigation. Circumstances of disclosure led to further distortion. JournalistJohn L. Spivak, researching Nazism and anti-Semitism for New Masses magazine, got permission from Dickstein to examine HUAC's public documents and was (it seems unwittingly) given the unexpurgated testimony amid stacks of other papers.
Spivak's two-part feature "Wall Street's Fascist Conspiracy" appeared in early 1935, a month after the hearings closed. He cogently developed a case for taking the suppressed testimony seriously. But this relevant material was embellished with overblown aspersions against "Jewish financiers working with fascist groups"-a mishmash of guilt by association that connected Morgan interests with Jewish financier Felix Warburg, HUAC, and certain members of the American Jewish Committee. Spivak was intent upon grinding his own axes, and elucidation of the plot was obscured. The suppressed Butler-MacGuire conversations could hardly support all this. Moreover New Masses was left-wing with a limited readership; the scoop was stigmatized as "red" propaganda and generally not cited elsewhere.
Spivak's pieces contrasted with the treatment the plot received in the right-wing press. Time magazine outdid itself in superciliousness, ridiculing the story as its National Affairs lead story the first week with no followup coverage of the many developments until, three months later, brief mention in a footnote to a jaunty Butler-Jimmy Durante "personalities" photo. This curtly related HUAC's final report to Congress that the "story of a Fascist march on Washington was alarmingly true." The extravagant earlier piece featured a burlesque with half a million veterans marching through Maryland on US. Route 1 led by Butler on a white horse, accompanied by Johnson, MacArthur, and three former Legion commanders: "Between them and the first squad of marching men glided a shiny limousine. On its back seat, with a plush robe across their knees, were to be seen John P. Morgan and his partner, Thomas William Lamont, deep in solemn talk." Time remarked that "no military officer of the US. since the late, tempestuous George Custer has succeeded in publicly floundering in so much hot water as Smedley Darlington Butler." The liberal Nation and New Republic argued that fascism originated in pseudoradical mass movements; therefore Butler's revelations of a reactionary Wall Street plot were no cause for alarm.38
Smedley denounced HUAC on national radio for suppressing evidence
and stopping "dead in its tracks when it got near the top"
by failing to call Murphy, Clark, and others to testifr He denied
the plot was Fascist, "except certain newspapers and the
Committee itself so termed it," nor had a march on Washington
ever been mentioned. In a rejoinder, Dickstein argued that Butler
had never "made any specific charges" against the big
names. But Dickstein's criticisms were qualified in Butler's favor,
reflecting HUAC's final report to Congress: "There is no
question that these attempts [the plot] were discussed, were planned,
and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial
backers deemed it expedient." The committee had verified
"all the pertinent statements made by General Butler, with
the exception of the direct statement suggesting the creation
of the organization.~~ The New York Times paraphrased the report
in a front-page story: "Definite proof has been found that
the much publicized Fascist march on Washington, which was to
have been led by Maj. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, retired, according
to testimony at the hearing, was actually contemplated."
But by this time, with HUAC terminated, there was no apparent
means or inclination to pursue the story further.39
Butler may have blown the whistle on an incipient conspiracy, and the plot reverberated in contemporary events and down through the years. Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis explored similar themes of collusion between the rich, the military and ex-military, and the right-wing press in his admonitory 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here. Silver Shirts, Khaki Shirts and the Black Legion were highly visible reminders, however marginal and strange, that paramilitary strong-arm methods appealed to some Americans. A botched Khaki Shirt march on Washington the previous year served as paradigm for media coverage of Butler's charges, as did Mussolini's 1922 march on Rome.
Probably the most important effect of the Butler episode was to stigmatize right-wing protofascist linkages. The Liberty League proved particularly vulnerable, as noted by its historian, George Wolfskill: "Some people were easily spooked; and with the unthinking ones allegations, no matter how incredulous, were accepted as facts. From the Butler yarn there remained a residue of suspicion. The League was now more vulnerable to future attacks, attacks of perhaps not so serious a nature but no less worthy, attacks against which there was no adequate defense." But then the League itself gratuitously publicized its proneness to cranky right-wing fanaticism in the effusions of its leading spokesmen, such as Al Smith, who wildly attacked the New Deal as cryptocommunism. This was strikingly analogous to attacks on democratic governments by European Fascists. In this sense the gold plot, if not the march on Washington, was both sufficiently concrete and close to the League to justify larger suspicions. The League, as Wolf-skill noted, failed to protect itself from associations with right-wing extremists and suffered the consequences in terms of public distrust-and rightfully so.40
Butler's attack on Wall Street enhanced his reputation as a champion of the rank-and-file, spitting in the eyes of the rich and powerful, whether he took a drubbing in the right-wing press or not. In the fall of 1935 he was named secretary of war in presidential aspirant Huey Long's shadow cabinet, revealed in My First Days in the White House, which was published posthumously shortly after Long's assassination. Long "understood" Butler
"more intimately than some of my other appointees to the cabinet." In a chapter entitled "Wherein Rebellion Brews and Fades," he had Smedley putting down a right-wing putsch by Morgan interests intent upon sabotaging Share Our Wealth legislation. Butler, enroute to a VFW convention in New Orleans, commented that the selection was "the greatest compliment ever paid me," but in fact had almost nothing to do with Long except that they made speeches together favoring the bonus. In private letters he praised Long for siding with the underdog, and mentioned that "with Huey Long's death I lost most of my interest in the present political picture."4'
Otherwise, the plot and its ramifications isolated him further from conventional politics, and he seemed to relish the final burnings of bridges. He was now more than ever a loner, speaking his mind as a free spirit. And he was an emotional man. Spivak, on trudging through the snow to Butler's home in Newtown Square, was amazed to find a general who talked like a radical agitator: "When I saw him he said things about big business and politics, sometimes in earthy, four-letter words, the like of which I had never heard from the most excited agitators crying on streetcorners, from socialists speaking on the New Haven Green or, in later years, from communists." When Spivak reminded him he was from New Masses, reputedly "a communist magazine," Smedley replied, "So who the hell cares?" The United States had been founded by radicals. George Washington, after all, was "an extremist-a goddam revolutionist!" In 1936 he voted for Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas.42
He had started letting loose before retirement. In August 1931, according to Jules Archer's undocumented secondary account, he used the "racketeer for capitalism" epigram that appeared variously in his speeches and writings thereafter.43 Most frequently cited was the 1935 Common Sense article quoted at the front of this book and elaborated here:
I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purifly Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested... . Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents."
He was said to have used identical phrases in an unpublished November 1933 letter to Common Sense. Archer was probably right. Radical expressions were probably omitted from press reports of many of his speeches and toned down in articles submitted to conventional magazines. Snippets emerged. The previous January, Nation reported him characterizing the U.S. military as "a glorified bill-collecting agency~~ and saying he "wouldn't want to see a boy of mine march out with a Wall Street collar about his neck."45
Butler made the analogy between imperialism and domestic crime into an explicit indictment. His argument was rooted in conventional morality that had long sustained overseas and domestic coercion in the names of uplift and reform. When used to conquer injustice and backwardness and to spread the American way of life, the use of force was good. Conversely, force used for evil was all the more hateful when tainted with deceit and hypocrisy. Current popular fascination with gangsterism-witness the stardom of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and the dozens of Hollywood gangster films each year-provided convenient jargon which Smedley used to drive home a conviction that had evolved out of a lifetime of military and police experience.
He had been inveighing against gangster-political manipulations since at least 1912, when he was outraged in Nicaagua by predatory client-government officials, the "gang," being allowed to subvert his own "honest" administration in Granada.46 Now his renunciation of war as a racket and imperialism as gangsterism matched exactly his invective against Capone. Crime fighting at home was sustained by ideals of uplift and fair play-the same as official rationales for intervention overseas. Abuse of the military for corrupt purposes overseas was equivalent to police corruption at home. The logic was inescapable once one had dispensed with the patriotic symbols, pious rhetoric, and specious legalism that had wafted a long succession of overseas military expeditions.
His anti-imperialist, anticapitalist rhetoric was offset neatly by vigorous support for domestic law and order. The issue was justice and morality, boldly asserted in terms of duty-bound American manliness. Likewise, his antiwar theme was complemented by unflinchingly militaristic support for national defense. He was always the patriot and battling marine, never the sniveling pacifist or convoluted ideologue. The marriage of extreme left-and right-wing themes enhanced his warrior method of attack.
The resulting system of contentious arguments was morally consistent and coherent enough to be convincing and, if not, to disarm and placate by its balanced audacity. Butler was careful not to commit himself to the many partisan organizations he encountered as an orator and propagandist, so that he could be taken on merit and be respected for his personal integrity. He thus maintained a degree of credibility across the political spectrum and was able to publish his radical views in such diverse forums as Woman's Home Companion, Reader's Digest, Common Sense, and New Masses. Even when toleration for dissent narrowed with the coming of war in the late 1930s, he remained a popular spokesman on the veterans' circuit. And he collaborated on friendly terms with such seeming irreconcilables as Earl Browder Maury Maverick, James G. Harbord, andJ. Edgar Hoover, not to mention ongoing loyal friendships with a number of Marine Corps officers. In 1936 when General Harbord, a widely respected military figure, published his The American Army in France, 1917-19, he included a glowing recitation of the Duckboard saga and referred to Butler as "that Marine of Marines," and "a great organizer of men, the best I have ever known in commands where personal contact was possible for the organizer." Smedley wrote a testimonial for the book.47
Most surprising, in retrospect, was his reputation in the law enforcement community as an expert and proponent of state and federal constabularies while he simultaneously expounded left-wing views on capitalism and imperialism. He frequently boosted the FBI as the shining example of how the federal government should respond to crime. Butler's FBI file contains a half dozen reports by field agents who heard and often shared speakers' platforms with him during the late l930s. He was reported to have told an Idaho American Legion convention "to support you [Director J. Edgar Hoover] and the Bureau in every way," and to have praised the FBI as "the finest organization in the world today. . . with the possible exception of the Marine Corps." The agent, who was the only other speaker, noted that Smedley "spoke along his usual lines, calling on the Legion to keep the country out of war. His talk was extremely well received and he was congratulated by me at its conclusion." Hoover sent Smedley thank you notes and invited him to tour the Bureau in Washington. Butler often quoted Hoover in his speeches, for which Hoover sent pamphlets and copies of his own speeches, up to 1940 when an agent reported: "He is still a sincere admirer of you and the Bureau and showed me several of your recent addresses which he carries with him and from which he states he quotes in every talk."48
When Butler told a 1936 dentists' convention in Chicago that the FBI was one of the few government departments "which did not smell to high heaven," the agent who was his co-speaker warmly thanked him and reiterated Hoover's invitation to visit Bureau headquarters. That the agent considered the remainder of Smedley's speech, entitled "The Munitions Racket," to be "rather radical . . . he castigated everybody from the President down, and particularly the present Secretary of War," did not seem to matter. And he noted approvingly that the speech was "well received" by the audience. In 1961, when tolerance for dissent was very narrow, someone sent in a clipping quoting Butler's "racketeer for capitalism" diatribe. The agent researching the complaint found numerous references to Butler in bureau files and came to the conclusion that "our relations with him were very cordial." Since he had been dead for twenty years, the case was dropped.49
The FBI was aware of the alleged 1934 Wall Street plot but apparently did not investigate. In a curious sequel, while visiting the bureau in 1936 Butler told Hoover about a plot by Father Charles Coughlin to invade Mexico to protect the Catholic Church from harassment. Smedley said that Coughlin, the famous "radio priest" whose voice he recognized, had approached him by telephone and that the call was traced back to Coughlin afterward. It seems that Butler was being hoaxed. In any case, he was clearly wary of becoming involved in another publicized plot exposé. He did mention the Coughlin plot again to an agent in 1940 in connection with what he termed dozens of "screwball" organizations that had invited him to appear as a speaker.50
Butler's affinity with Hoover reflected what historian Samuel Walker bemoaned as a trend toward highly centralized authority by which police executives were given "almost complete discretion~~ to do as they liked:
"Like General Butler in Philadelphia and Boss Frank Hague in Jersey City, J. Edgar Hoover proved that the techniques of professionalism and efficiency could easily be perverted." Walker castigated Hoover for manipulating public fears of a crime wave during the 1930s by mounting an FBI "publicity blitz" regarding a few sensational criminals, in which the bureau's press releases "inflated to heroic proportions" its successes. A most disturbing aspect was the "vicious quality of the rhetoric" used, in which Hoover referred to criminals as "vermin~~ and "Public Rat Number One." The result was reorientation of police professionalism so that the "crime-fighter image" perniciously superseded "social work aspects of policing." Butler, with his fervid warrior-style exhortations to "put the law books in cold storage and bring out the high-powered rifles and machine guns," was a leading exponent of this trend.51
At the other end of the political spectrum, Butler wrote five articles for non-Marxist, socialist Common Sense magazine in 1935~36.52 During this period Common Sense featured intellectuals, such as John Dewey, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, and Bertrand Russell, and practicing politicians such as Floyd B. Olsen and Maury Maverick, with format and style pitched to the general public. Butler became a prominent spokesman for the League Against War and Fascism, which was considered by many to be Communistdominated.53 Local American Legion units occasionally harassed the League for its alleged subversive activities. No matter, Smedley retained his stature as a red-blooded patriot; the Marine Corps League (veterans) pleaded with him to attend its 1936 national convention: "We need you vitally... . We must have the support by personal presence of two or more of our Nationally known leaders, such as yourself." In 1941, the Smedley D. Butler Detachment petitioned President Roosevelt that a Tulsa newspaper was publishing "un-American" editorials.54
Following Spivak's 1935 "Wall Street Fascist Conspiracy" articles, New Masses published "Where Smedley Butler Stands." The author, Walter Wilson, recalled attending a left-wing veterans' meeting in New York where Smedley spoke after James Ford, a black veterans' leader and Communist Party vice presidential candidate. Butler said New York newspapers had tried to stop him coming: "They told me I'd find a nest of communists here. I told them 'What the hell of it!' In 1917 the government went around drafting boys into the army; they didn't ask then what a man's politics were; they merely asked if he had a sound body and a strong back."55
Noting that many of Butler's statements had been vague so that "a lot of people mistakenly considered him a demagogue in the Long or Coughlin class," Wilson tried to pin him down. Smedley replied with his current views. Big Business and Wall Street were the enemies, bent upon "the same tricks used by European dictators to keep capitalism on the top of the economic heap." Workers had an absolute right to strike, and calling them Bolsheviks was just a pretext for repression. Company unions were "a racket." He endorsed the American Federation of Labor but was critical of its leadership: "Why, I'm more radical than most of them." For political affinities, he named Congressmen Maury Maverick and Vito Marcantonio, and Senator Ernest Lundeen, all on the far left of the congressional spectrum. While conceding undemocratic aspects and need for reform, he firmly believed in American democracy. On a personal level, he said he had now given over 1,200 speeches in 700 towns and cities. He needed the money, but recently declined a personnel manager job with a large corporation because "of course that simply meant keeping the workers fooled." Driving Wilson to the station after the interview Smedley pointed out the homes of his affluent neighbors, and Wilson gathered that many old associates were now hostile. "He told me that even certain relatives had lined up against him. It would seem that he has broken irrevocably with the upper classes."56
Butler was indeed moving in different circles from those usually habituated by retired generals mellowing in pensioned comfort. The left-wing veterans' meeting, for instance, took place at the Star Casino on 107th Street in East Harlem and featured Communist Party General Secretary Earl Browder and Congressman Marcantonio as well as Butler, Ford, and radical veterans' leaders. Smedley taunted the vets for supporting FDR:
"When he runs again in 1936, you soldiers will be out there voting for him again, too." There was a loud chorus of noes. A year later he joined Senators Gerald P. Nye and Elmer A. Benson, Professor Robert Morss Lovett, and Clarence Darrow in the Non-Partisan Committee for the Re-Election of Representative Vito Marcantonio; Joseph Brodsky, attorney for the Communist Party, presided at the public announcement.57
In a series of 1935 radio speeches over Philadelphia's WCAU, a Columbia network affiliate with national shortwave reach, Butler supported the current Camden shipyard strike and the Connery bill banning use of federal equipment by the National Guard against strikers. It was a year marked by vicious antilabor violence. One of the speeches was on the theme "a life is worth less than a pane of glass": "Some thug hired by the mills slams a blackjack across the head of a striker. And someone hurls a rock. Maybe it breaks a 6-cent pane of glass in the factory and maybe it doesn't. The hired thugs or the police-or maybe the national guard-whoever is there to guard the property-gets excited and starts shooting. And a striker or an innocent victim, maybe a woman or a child, gets shot." The thirteen quarter-hour weekly broadcasts, sponsored by Pep Boys automotive stores, were drafted by Dimitman and then read over the air, an awkward regimen for Smedley, who much preferred ad-libbing in his public lecture style. He complained to another journalist, "I don't like this broadcasting. It irritates me and is rapidly destroying my digestion."58
His major collaboration with Dimitman was the 1935 book War Is a Racket (52 pages). It was condensed in Reader's Digest as a book supplement, prefaced by Lowell Thomas commending Smedley's "moral as well as physical courage . ... Even his opponents concede that in his stand on public questions, General Butler has been motivated by the same fiery integrity and loyal patriotism which has distinguished his service in countless Marine campaigns."59
War Is a Racket was an expansion of an earlier magazine article. Dimitman said he dictated the draft manuscript to his wife in a single night. Briskly written, it began with the catch phrase, "War is a racket," and ended with "TO HELL WITH WAR!" War and imperialism were functions of capitalists' greed: "Newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few-the self-same few who wrung dollars out of the blood of war." America had respected Washington's (actually Thomas Jefferson's) warning against "entangling alliances" before 1898, but had become "internationally minded" thereafter: "It would have been far cheaper (not to say safer) for the average American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements. For a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operation is always transferred to the people-who do not profit."60
Chapters entitled "Who Makes the Profits?" and "Who Pays the Bills" cited data culled from Senate hearings on profiteering during the World War. The victims were taxpayers and a generation of young men whose minds were twisted through psychological manipulation-about which Smedley the charismatic commander could have claimed to be an authority:
"They were made to 'about face'; to regard murder as the order of the day.. . . We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think nothing at all of killing or being killed." Many were "destroyed, mentally, because they could not make the final 'about face"' back to civilian life. Men were made to feel ashamed if they shunned military service. War propaganda was "so vicious that even God was brought into it." Clergymen, avowing that "God is on our side," incited the soldiers to "kill, kill, kill." Making the "world safe for democracy," "war to end wars" and other "beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die." They were told it would be a "glorious adventure." And they were paid $30 a month, less deductions for Liberty Bonds which were later sold at discount contributing to bankers profits "in the hocus-pocus of manipulated Liberty Bond prices."61
In the chapter "How to Smash this Racket!" he urged an assault upon capitalist warmongers and their political allies. Capital, industry, and labor should be conscripted a month before any general manpower draft in wartime, to serve for $30. Everyone must "be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldier in the trenches!" After thinking it over, the warmongers would change their minds. A law should be passed requiring a plebiscite before declaration of war, with voting lists restricted to young men of military age who had qualified for the draft.
There must be laws restricting the military to defensive functions. Lobbying by militarists must be thwarted. "Swivel-chair admirals" were smart:
"They don't shout that 'We need a lot of battleships to war on this nation or that nation.' . . . [first] they let it be known that America is menaced by a great naval power. . . . the great fleet of this supposed enemy will strike suddenly and annihilate our 125,000,000 people. Just like that. Then they begin to cry for a larger navy." Next the admirals stage maneuvers-not right off the Pacific Coast but two or three thousand miles off the coast: "The Japanese, a proud people, of course will be pleased beyond expression to see the United States fleet so close to Nippon's shores. Even as pleased as would be the residents of California were they to dimly discern, through the morning mist, the Japanese fleet playing at war games off Los Angeles."62
Much of War Is a Racket was stock antiwar, anti-imperialist idiom, part of an American tradition dating back to the eighteenth century. Butler's particular contribution was his recantation, denouncing war on moral grounds after having been a warrior hero and spending most of his life as a military insider. The theme remained vigorously patriotic and nationalistic, decrying imperialism as a disgrace rooted in the greed of a privileged few.
No consideration was given to geopolitical factors by which a Great Power's spheres of influence, hegemony over satellite states, and preemptive military actions might be rationalized. But, especially since the recent extravagant propaganda of the Great War, public discourse over these issues was almost entirely on a moral and idealistic plane. Proponents of overseas military interventions seldom raised cynical justifications, lest they discredit the high-minded crusading purposes that were their rallying cries.
Butler emphasized class interest and a populist projection of the anti-imperialist message. As a renegade warrior and gruff soldiers' general, he had an appeal and authority quite different from the usual run of pacifist intellectuals, reformers, statesmen, and clergy who crusaded on these issues. But then, the 1930s were unique in that antiwar sentiment attained unprecedented popular scope, ranging from national college student strikes to the veterans' resolutions and petitions in Butler's domain.
Apart from the veterans' circuit, he associated with all manner of antiwar groups and presented his case at a variety of levels. In 1935 he began his two-year association with the League Against War and Fascism, a united front of socialists, communists, and various church, college, trade union, and women's groups. In Cleveland in early 1936, he gave a talk entitled "War Is a Racket" as main speaker of the Third US. Congress Against War and Fascism, after having given another speech on behalf of the League over the ABC radio network that afternoon. Other speakers included Rabbi Barnett R. Brickner, Langston Hughes, Heywood Broun, and Roger Baldwin. Baldwin, longtime head of the American Civil Liberties Union, who at this time moved furthest left in a lifetime of left-liberal politics, later recalled: "My fears [of fascism] were shared by my colleagues, most surprising of whom was a retired general of the marines, Smedley D. Butler, who often spoke with me at League meetings. The general was the most colorfully outspoken opponent of war, armies, fascism and reaction I'd ever met. He got fairly good fees for it, but conviction was his motive."63
In November 1936 the League's local branch in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, was denied use of the high school auditorium by the board of education which said Butler's speaking might incite a riot. He went through with the meeting anyhow. One member recalled: "His coming was on all radio stations with the threat of riot emphasized and we had the largest paid audience ever in a loft with the whole town police force in attendance.. . . Many of his Nicaraguan soldiers came and shook his hand. It was fun. He spoke of colonial warring and said it was not for the flag but for big business. Much applause-no riot. . . . He wasn't very big but he was great and we were very grateful." But Smedley opposed all overseas military intervention, and broke with the League when it favored intervention during the Spanish Civil War. He told one meeting, "What in hell is it our business what's going on in Spain."64
By 1936 he had long since abandoned the New Deal. Earlier attacks over the veterans' bonus gave way to criticism of what he took to be FDR's guileful preparations for war. In 1935 he told 4,000 veterans at the VFW annual convention that America was "rapidly drifting toward another war through the medium of dictatorship. The political leaders of this country are for another conflict to cover up their blunders." In early 1936, anticipating FDR's first covert moves toward the World War II alliance system, Butler advocated requiring the secretary of state to read all diplomatic correspondence over the radio to preclude secret commitments.65
He even took a swipe at his old Haiti quartermaster, now FDR's
assistant secretary of the navy: "Complacent and credulous
Assistant Secretary Henry Latrobe Roosevelt performs his duties
as a yes-man for the gold-braided bureaucrats [admirals] with
no questions asked." Yet earlier that year, chiding himself
for being a "nut or a sentimental old fool," he sent
a warm note to HLR recalling the old days: "The sight of
you sitting in that Committee Room yesterday brought over me a
great wave of affection for you personally." But this was
qualified with reference to present disputes: "I don't like
your playmates or the gang you run with."66
Butler's critique focused particularly on naval expenditures and naval diplomacy, areas in which he had considerable expertise and a strong personal sense of historical perspective. Naval policy was FDR's foremost military passion, and the navy was the first service to undergo extensive rearmament corresponding to an increasingly militaristic foreign policy. The doldrums in military spending were over, and Butler was quick to blow the whistle. In the 1935 Common Sense article subtitled "'Happy Days Are Here Again': The Navy," he called FDR "the biggest of the big navy men" who was reversing an anti-imperialist trend maintained by Republican presidents since World War I. None of the Republicans had "shown much concern about protecting our overseas possessions," notably his old adversary Herbert Hoover whom Smedley now lauded for prescribing "that the army and navy should be large enough to prevent invasion-nothing more."67
He recalled that half a century ago the navy had built coast-defense battleships "far more responsive to the national will and far more in step with our traditional policies," but then Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt had administered "their respective shots of imperialistic hasheesh." Subsequent naval interventions had "coerced small countries into bowing to the wishes of our commercial interests." Now naval expansion was broached in terms of defense, but in reality it was a recrudescence of imperialism "at direct odds" with current neutrality legislation. The navy did not "possess a single plan that does not contemplate an attack on another country. Its true policy is the bewhiskered imperialistic slogan 'the best defense is the offensive' . . . to be able to sail to foreign waters and attack its enemy of the moment at the first opportunity."68
Regarding most of this, he might well have delved into his own efforts as a marine propagandist in the 1 920s, and his father's long involvement as a principal architect of the modern "big navy" in three decades on the House Naval Affairs Committee. But he never mentioned his father in public, nor did he publicly discuss Marine Corps politics and personalities except in the 1935 attempt to block Commandant Russell's confirmation. He still considered himself very much a loyal marine and by and large honored the confidentiality of past relationships including his own complicity at the policy-niaking level. And yet he was an ardent convert, suggesting in his denunciations that he knew whereof he spoke and had been on the high road himself. As an insistent and self-confessed turncoat, he had to maintain his personal dignity or else succumb to ridicule-to which he was, in any case, no stranger. He repeatedly pushed his public credibility to the limits and beyond and took an enormous amount of abuse accordingly.
In opposing the remilitarization of American foreign policy, he called for a viable defense exclusive of imperialistic capabilities. With existing US. military capability, no foreign enemy or likely coalition could invade America. It would take a force of at least a million men to invade a nation of 130 million. They would have to arrive all at once to be effective. There was not enough shipping in the entire world to transport such a force across 3,000 miles of ocean in a period of ten days. In the last war it had taken four months, using the enemy's biggest ships as well, to get a million men to Europe. A strong US. coastal defense would be a final and insurmountable obstacle. In Woman's Home Companion, also in 1936, he advocated a constitutional amendment to prohibit removal of armed forces from the continental United States and Panama Canal, and to restrict warships to within 500 miles of the coast and aircraft to within 700 miles, somewhat extended from distances proposed in War Is a Racket. The real danger of war was American military adventurism, not foreign invasion.69
Similarly, he was an early and dedicated supporter of Congressman Louis Ludlow's proposed constitutional amendment to require a national referendum prior to declaration of war. Ludlow invited him to testify atJudiciary Committee hearings, where Butler pointed out that he had "invaded country after country, at the direction of the President of the United States, without a declaration of war." A referendum would delay war and thus make presidential circumvention less feasible. He urged restriction of voting to those between eighteen and forty-five years of age and their wives. In November 1935 he spoke favoring the Ludlow bill to a crowd of 10,000 peace demonstrators in Philadelphia following a parade up Broad Street. The crowd chanted "no more war" and "unite for peace," one of many such spectacles in the mid-1930s. In 1937 Ludlow asked him to help form a national committee.70
A critical juncture for remilitarization was the 1938 Naval Expansion (Vinson) Act for construction of battleships, aircraft carriers, and cruisers to create a two-ocean navy with long-range attack capabilities. Butler testified at length to Senate Naval Affairs Committee hearings regarding his past career "running around the world guarding Standard Oil tins" and "robbing little Central and South American countries in the interests of Wall Street." He described himself as a "military isolationist" who believed "in having all sorts of friendly contacts and commercial contacts with all other nations on earth," but in keeping military forces "within our own boundaries." This was in opposition to a "very, very small minority that think we should police the world, that we should guard every American wherever he might be, and every dollar wherever it might be." Another group, also a small minority, wanted to police just the Western Hemisphere. The majority, in which Smedley included himself, would guard the continental United States only. There was another small group, outright pacifists, "that thinks we ought to disarm and trust to the 'ring-around-the-rosy' loving each other procedure to insure our safety."71
As a military isolationist, Butler did not turn against the military as such. He was isolationist only insofar as he denounced overseas military interventions, which he saw as tantamount to imperialism-or international gangsterism, as he had come to understand and loathe it. Imminently, however, massive overseas military intervention and rampant militarization of US. foreign policy during and after the coming World War resulted in drastic reformulation of public debate. Crusading military interventionism was again termed "internationalism," as in the Wilsonian precedent. Again represented as messianic patriotism, it was self-justifying and self-glorifying as against a succession of evil empires that threatened America's global reach. The regime of wartime propaganda, extending to paranoia during the Cold War, redefined tolerable public discourse to exclude Butler's viewpoint. Military expeditions were again equated with making the world safe for democracy-dubious inference that required an extraordinary exercise in ideological distortion. "Isolationism" was relegated to the dustbin of history, exorcised of its anti-imperialist heresy and then ridiculed as rustic, narrow-minded, and xenophobic.72
During the height of the Cold War, many interventionist euphemisms
that Butler had denounced in the 1930s attained full sway. For
instance, the isolationist maxim of strong military defense was
usurped and distorted by doublethink such as renaming the War
Departament the Defense Department and garrisoning "strategic
defense perimeters" in the far corners of the world. The
marines, for reasons of their own, banned "expeditionary"
terminology in the mid-1930s and changed the Expeditionary Force
to the politically neutral Fleet Marine Force.73 Had Butler denounced
"robbing little Central and South American countries in the
interests of Wall Street" before a Senate committee in the
1950s, he would have been reviled as unAmerican, an insult he
would have furiously resented.
Butler did not live to see the "internationalist" versus "isolationist" debate perverted to this extent. But he could clearly foresee the coming interventionist sanctification of war, and spent his last years trying to demystify it. The mystique of militarism, as he well knew, was largely based on the arrogation of special expertise to imply professional infallibility. "There isn't any secret about this business," he testified to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee: "My experience was in the bushes, but, nevertheless, I got to be a general officer, and I was one for 14 years before I retired. I sat on these boards and I saw all this stuff. It was as easy as rolling off the logs." Generals, he wrote, "besides being reactionary," were possessed of "the backwardness of the military mind."74
Japanese aggression did not impress him: "Japan happens to be the enemy this year. Next year it may be somebody else . . . . The next thing we may be loving the Japanese to death." The 1937 sinking of a US. gunboat on the Yangtze in company with three Standard Oil tankers was proof that American forces were posted where they had no business being: "Why don't those damned oil companies fly their own flags on their personal property- maybe a flag with a gas pump on it." Marines, soldiers, and gunboats in China should all be brought home. "United States citizens should get the hell out of China and stay out. ... let the financial interests who are crying over there run up their own flags and fight their own baffles." The United States must abandon the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, to which he now added the Panama Canal, rather than war for them.75
As for Europe, the United States had nothing to do with "Hitler's landgrabbing" or with "promises Britain and France made to Poland." He elaborated in the 1939 anthology Common Sense Neutrality, playing upon presumed American moral superiority but drawing opposite conclusions from the interventionists-America was above the baffle: "These are some of the SMELLY things in this pit of European back-alley politics into which we will be sucked if we don't watch our step-if we are fools enough to get all excited about this brawl that is going on over there, as such brawls have, almost since the dawn of history." The anthology, edited by his ally in the 1934 Wall Street plot exposé, Paul Comly French, included pieces by Charles A. Beard, a number of senators, Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Norman Thomas, and the commander of the American Legion. Elsewhere, Smedley conceded that, along with "90 percent of the American people," he sympathized with the western allies. But this was no reason to intervene or rearm beyond "an iron clad defense a rat couldn't crawl through."76
One of his more desperate gestures, at the crest of the peace movement when public pressure still confounded the interventionist Roosevelt administration, came at the 1937 VFW annual convention in Buffalo. The VFW, with 300,000 members as against the American Legion's one million, held that year's encampment under the slogan "Peace for America," and heard speakers including New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Senators Bennett Champ Clark, Josh Lee, and Arthur H. Vandenberg. The press photo of Vandenberg at the convention showed him against a backdrop picture of horse marines in Shanghai over the slogan "Take the Dollar Signs Out of the Baffle Flags." "Loudest cheers," according to Time magazine, "were reserved for an old VEW favorite, Major General Smedley Butler.""
Smedley exhorted the vets, "It's your crowd that's going to do the dying and bleeding, not the Wall Street bunch of flag wavers," and the convention, "lifting chunks from the Vandenberg and Butler speeches," adapted an antiwar resolution calling for mandatory neutrality and withdrawal of all American forces from foreign soil. Then, just before the convention closed, Smedley was reintroduced to make a special announcement. As reported by the New York Times, he "amazed the session" by reading a letter ostensibly sent by FDR expressing appreciation of the veterans' "red-blooded, soldierly resolution" and agreeing that "other countries must make their damned wars without our help." The veterans "whooped and whistled in appreciation" until Butler concluded saying, "It ain't signed. Wouldn't it be fine if we did get such a letter from the President?" He predicted that a real letter would be forthcoming, but this rather silly ploy aborted.78
As the peace movement waned in the face of totalitarianism and militarism, he met with increasing disparagement in the interventionist press. In March 1939, Time ridiculed a performance at Wesleyan University:
"Noisy, beak-nosed Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, US.M.C., retired, exploded with a characteristic bit of Butlerese: 'If there is another war I intend to make James Roosevelt [FDR's son] go to the front line ~enches.... I am not afraid! Let them shoot me! I'm all through. Let's get shot here at home if we're going to be shot."' It was easy to patronize such an outspoken firebrand, particularly when he overstepped the bounds of propriety, as he often did. In private Josephus Daniels, who went against the internationalist grain by praising Butler in a 1937 war monument speech at Brest, wrote apologetically to FDR: "I felt it was due Smedley to pay tribute to his good work here. If he was as wise in speech as he was brave in war, he would not have lost the prestige he deserved."79
During these last years, Butler was increasingly cut off from old connections. Of his lifelong friends in the Marine Corps, only Torchy Robinson came regularly to visit, also occasionally Vandegrift, and Smedley came to feel that many of his old cronies had had ulterior motives. Lejeune kept in touch but was reserved. Smedley tended more toward reflection; his son Tom remembered seeing him sitting alone in the back yard for hours on end, staring at the horizon. One of his granddaughters recalled listening from an upstairs bedroom at night to loud arguments going on below, probably about politics.80 But whatever the private frustrations, Smedley persisted as a magnetic public personality and committed activist.
With war a reality since 1937 in the Far East and since 1939 in Europe, the prospects for keeping America out were fading fast. Butler's radio broadcasts, several on national networks, were delivered in an emotional, hoarse, low gravelly voice, not unlike the intimate style popularized by Gabriel Heatter and other radio personalities of the day. Smedley's speeches were characterized by colorful language and frequent aphorisms, condemning "war dogs" and war as "a mean, cruel, yes filthy racket." In an October 1939 broadcast introduced by Senator Clark, he urged the mothers of America not to let their sons be sent overseas as "cannon fodder":
Now - you Mothers, particularly! The only way you can resist all this war hysteria and beating of tom-toms is by asserting the love you bear your boys. When you listen to some well worded, some well-delivered war speech, just remember it's nothing but sound. No amount of sound can make up to you for the loss of your boy. After you've heard one of those speeches and your blood's all hot and you want to bite somebody like Hitler .- go upstairs to where your boy's asleep.. . . Look at him. Put your hand on that spot on the back of his neck. The place you used to love to kiss when he was a baby. Just rub it a little. You won't wake him up, he knows it's you. Just look at his strong, fine young body because only the best boys are chosen for war. Look at this splendid young creature who's part of yourseW then close you eyes for a moment and I'll tell you what can happen....
Somewhere-five thousand miles from home. Night. Darkness. Cold. A drizzling rain. The noise is terrific. All Hell has broken loose. A star shell burst in the air. Its unearthly flare lights up the muddy field. There's a lot of tangled rusty barbed wires out there and a boy hanging over them-his stomach ripped out, and he's feebly calling for help and water. His lips are white and drawn. He's in agony.
There's your boy. The same boy who's lying in bed tonight. The same boy who trusts you.. . . Are you going to run out on him? Are you going to let someone beat a drum or blow a bugle and make him chase after it? Thank God, this is a Democracy and by your voice and your vote you can save your boy.81
In early 1940 Butler set out on a grueling six-week western speaking tour during which Germany launched its Blitzkrieg in northern and western Europe. Returning home, he wrote the head of an Independent Republican Women's group that he was tired and in poor health, and so would have to defer a speech: "I hope you realize that I am about run to death making speeches professionally and I feel that I must take a rest this summer as my engagements run clear up into June. Also I feel sure there is no use talking any more about this war business. The people of America are fools. If they want to have their children shot in order to keep Franklin Roosevelt on a pedestal, they will just have to do it."82
Appropriately, among what proved to be his few remaining appearances were talks to Quaker Meetings in West Chester and at Swarthmore-close to home and the antiwar taproot of family beliefs. On 22 May he gave a last speech in his usual style to a Temple University Alumni dinner at the Penn Athletic Club, warning that the United States should not get "panicky" over British and French military collapse. England was not finished until its navy was sunk; by then Hitler would be too weak to attack the United States. Americans should defend their own country only, "everything else is a damned commercial racket of some kind." The Inquirer noted that he showed the strain of a long illness that had caused him to lose twenty-five pounds.83
The next day he entered Philadelphia Navy Yard hospital for what was thought to be a rest. Newspapers were filled with war news, and a cartoon in the Inquirer entitled "Break that Stranglehold" showed a snake labeled "Fifth Column Activists" wrapped around a gun marked "US. Defense Program." A week before, Congressman Martin Dies of the revamped Un-American Activities Committee had called for a crackdown on fifth columnists.84
Butler died four weeks later on 21 June, the day before the French surrender at Compiegne. His doctor described the illness as an incurable condition of the upper abdominal tract, presumably cancer. He was conscious until the end and attended by his family, which brought his new 1940 Oldsmobile, which he never drove, and parked it so he could see it from his hospital window. Later Mrs. Butler wrote Lejeune, "He was working so hard for his country, and came home always so tired.We were afraid of a breakdown but never dreamed there was anything serious." He left an estate of $2,000.85
He was eulogized extensively in the press and the Congressional Record, but evasively, indicating the extent that antiwar and anti-imperialist dissent had already been shut down. The New York Times ran a three-column obituary that made no mention whatsoever of his apostasy or antiwar activities. The Inquirer, without naming specifics, commended his "innate honesty and reckless courage," his fearlessness in speaking and acting "with complete disregard of the consequences to himself," and his heroic career as a soldier. The latter point was accentuated by a testimonial from Theodore Roosevelt that he was "the finest fighting man in the armed forces." Ex-Mayor Kendrick said he was "a man of strong character and absolutely a straight shooter... we remained close friends to the end." Farmer-Laborer Senator Lundeen, after an oblique reference to "a wild and fantastic [US.] defense plan contemplating the rescue of the British Empire" that was the sole veiled allusion to anti-imperialism in all the eulogies, said his "courage and patriotism cannot be questioned . . . if there ever was a patriot, and a noble, courageous warrior, it was General Smedley D. Butler, a man who was unafraid in the presence of kings and presidents, and who dared to speak his mind .at all times." FDR sent a personal message to Mrs. Butler, "I shall always remember the old days in Haiti," brushing aside the awkward recent years. -
Funeral services took place beneath the Chinese Thousand Blessings Umbrellas in the Butler home. A dozen uniformed marine officers, including Colonels Vandegrift and Ellis B. Miller, attended along with friends, members of the family, several congressmen, and nearly forty Philadelphia police officers. In the absence of an official military guard of honor, the policemen lined up outside the house as the casket was carried away.87
Butler's memory was subsequently honored by the 1941 commissioning of the destroyer USS Smedley D. Butler. In 1942 he was featured in an episode of the Hearst syndicate's wartime "Heroes of Democracy" newspaper cartoon series: three frames depicted heroic exploits in China, Nicaragua, and Mexico, and one frame showed him in civilian clothes, tie pulled loose and shirtsleeves rolled up, bellowing into a microphone, "1,000 Marines can whip 10,000 of any other soldiers!"-a line apparently lifted out of context from a 1937 VFW antiwar speech.88 In none of this, needless to say, was there any mention of his apostasy. The marine base on Okinawa is named after him.
A month after Smedley's death, a plaque commemorating his police work in Philadelphia reappeared in City Hall, and it was later permanently mounted on the outside facade. It had been out of sight in storage for the previous decade. Within the family Mrs. Butler, who did not drive, kept the 1940 Oldsmobile until 1956. She could not bear, and refused over the years, to listen to recordings of Smedley's radio broadcasts. The Butler home was kept by her and their children more or less intact the way Smedley left it, complete with Chinese Blessings Umbrellas, regimental banners, and other memorabilia, down to the present.89
Source: Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History, University Press of Kentucky (1987)